Hezbollah is preparing Syria as second battlefield against Israel
Hezbollah intends to wage its next war against Israel from deep within Syria, according to a report on a pro-Hezbollah news site last week.
The report, found on the web site Ya Sour, quoted Hezbollah sources saying the group intends to fire long-range projectiles at the Jewish state from the Qalamoun and Anti-Lebanon Mountain ranges, areas firmly under the Shiite group’s control on both the Syrian and Lebanese sides of the border.
There is reason to suspect that Hezbollah has indeed built up a missile arsenal in those areas, particularly as the city of Baalbek, the heartland of its Beqaa Valley stronghold, lies nearby. Israeli airstrikes against the group in Syria have been concentrated in Qalamoun. Moreover, a spokesman for the opposition’s Syrian National Salvation Front, named Fahd al-Masri, said in Dec. 2016 that Hezbollah was nearing completion of a tunnel in the Zabadani valley linking these two areas. Hezbollah seeks to facilitate the transfer of weapons and “reinforce its presence in the strategically important areas” in the western Damascus countryside, which includes Qalamoun, according to al-Masri.
Earlier in 2016, satellite images revealed a Hezbollah weapons warehouse slightly north of that area in Qusayr, where the group reportedly housed Katyusha rockets, mortars and howitzers. Reports also claimed Hezbollah was storing longer-range, Iranian-produced ballistic missiles there, including the Shahab-1, Shahab-2 and Fateh-110/M-600, which the organization could use to strike Israel. Intelligence has long suspected that Hezbollah possesses these missiles, but that has not been confirmed.
The Hezbollah sources told Ya Sour that the group was shifting its missile operations to the Qalamoun and Anti-Lebanon Mountain range because it would be easier “to camouflage the rockets and protect their storehouses and launchers from the danger of Israeli military planes.” They added that the Qalamoun’s vast expanses made the region ideal for easily and safely firing long-range ballistic missiles at Israel.
This latest report coincides with others that Hezbollah has transferred its longer-range rockets to Syria as part of a restructuring of its forces, as they require launching pads too large to be hidden in Lebanon from Israel’s aerial surveillance.
Hezbollah has good reason to prefer placing its longer-range weapons in Syria. This would place those projectiles out of range of IDF ground troops, and could be hidden in the Syrian army’s hardened shelters to better insulate them from air strikes. On the second day of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, it took the Israeli Air Force 34 minutes to destroy most of Hezbollah’s medium and long-range missiles tucked away in the rugged Lebanese terrain.
By dispersing the weapons across the Qalamoun Mountains, Hezbollah would complicate Israel’s task of replicating that success. Israeli jets would now have to cover a much larger area to locate and destroy these rockets, while also worrying about ducking Syrian and Russian air defenses.
However, these added difficulties are not insurmountable for Israel. The concentration of Israeli strikes in the Qalamoun region – 43 to date – demonstrates that Hezbollah’s arsenal in that area lies well within the IAF’s reach. The size of the launching pads and long-range missiles, their fueling time, and their lack of mobility would make them easy prey for Israeli jets operating over Qalamoun, allowing Israel to replicate its 2006 success. Israel also has experience in overcoming Russian-made air-defenses, as it did during the 1982 Lebanon War against Syria’s Soviet-built surface-to-air missile network in the Beqaa Valley. Israel’s new squadron of F-35 jets, expected to go into service by the end of 2017, will help surmount that challenge once again in a future war against Hezbollah.
The number of fronts on which Hezbollah will attempt fight is also part of the “surprises” to come in a future war, “which is right around the corner or closer,” the Hezbollah sources reportedly said. They claimed Hezbollah had already finished preparing the Golan Heights as an additional front to south Lebanon and had transferred high quality and specialized weapons there, fulfilling a long-standing promise by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah. Interestingly, the sources reportedly made this assertion two days before Harakat al-Nujaba, an Iranian-controlled Iraqi militia – which once described itself and Hezbollah as “twins of the resistance – announced the formation of its “Golan Liberation Brigade” to fight Israel.
Despite Hezbollah’s claims, fighting the IDF on multiple fronts will not be enough, on its own, to overwhelm Israel. The Israelis have successfully fought such wars in the past against conventional armies. It is Hezbollah’s reliance on guerilla tactics that make it a more elusive and formidable foe. However, those tactics – which depend on Lebanon’s more rugged topography – will be less effective in the relatively flat Syrian side of the Heights, where Israel controls the high ground.
David Daoud is an Arabic-Language Analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.